Rabbi İzak Algazi Efendi

( by Bülent Aksoy )


İzak Algazi was one of the foremost names in recent Jewish history, and one of the great voices of our country; possibly the greatest Sephardic musician of the early twentieth century. Algazi Efendi did not win the admiration of Jews alone, but of Turks as well. In his time, he became a well known artist in all musical circles, and because of his mastery and knowledge of music, he was referred to by the Turks as “hoca” (teacher).

Because of Algazi’s uncommonly broad vocal range and superior singing style, he has survived to the modern day on 78 recordings. Nearly three quarters of a century have passed since the 1920s and early 30s when these records were made; they no longer show up on the 78 market. Although he was a famous rabbi and well known as a musician during the period he lived in Turkey, almost nothing has been written about him, either in those years or in years to follow. No satisfying information on him is to be found, either in the form of biographies or memoirs. The Turkish Jewish historian Prof. Avram Galnti devoted part of his book, Türkler ve Yahudiler (The Turks and the Jews), written in 1827 in Arabic script and republished in 1947 in Latin letters, to Algazi, and provides the following information about him:

“İshak Algazi was the son of Salomon Algazi; his name was well known in Turkey, and especially in Izmir and Istanbul. This young master with his extraordinary voice gained great fame with his works, especially his kâr composed in Neveser, as well as his şevkefza, mâye, sûzidil and bestenigâr fasıls.

İshak Algazi lived in Istanbul for several years and made himself known there. During the period when the issue of the revision of Turkish music was being debated in the newspapers, the late Atatürk invited Algazi to Dolmabahçe Palace in order to gain his opinion. Singing pieces from various eras, Maestro Algazi gave a history of Turkish music. In order to show his gratitude and appreciation, Atatürk gave him a gift of a Holy Koran which he had signed (1).”

In Professor Galanti’s book, Türk Harsı ve Türk Yahudisi (Turkish Culture and the Turkish Jew), published 25 years later, he once again treated the issue of “Jews and Eastern Music,” and wrote the following about “İzmirli İshak Algazi.”

“Another great and recognized Turkish Jewish artist, İshak Algazi came to Istanbul and, remaining eight to ten years, busied himself with Turkish music, wrote many articles on the subject in Turkish newspapers, and was personally received by Atatürk. During this visit, which lasted four or five hours, Algazi sang some pieces in various makams, and provided explanations of these makams. Pleased with Algazi’s voice and information, Atatürk presented him with an autographed copy of the Holy Koran printed in the new [Latin] script.

As Algazi’s beautiful voice and knowledge were well known in the Jewish world, they desired to acquire him into their synagogues with the appellation “Rabbi.” When offered the position of rabbi to the eastern Jewish congregation in Montevideo Uruguay, South America, Algazi settled there. As there were many eastern Jews of Turkish nationality in Montevideo, the ceremony at the synagogue was held with eastern music. An eastern Jew by the name of Nisim Hayon who traveled there wrote about that synagogue and of İshak Algazi. On Fridays and on Jewish holidays it was the custom, when the handwritten Torah was taken from the Ark, to recite a prayer for the long life of leader (emperor, king, president) of the country. The eastern Jewish community followed this custom, and prayed first for the president of Uruguay Luiz Barres, and then for the prime minister of Turkey, [İsmet] İnönü (Istanbul newspaper L’Etoile du Levant, Issue 44, March 20 1949).

Today Algazi is not sufficiently known, not only among young people but middle aged people as well. Algazi is a musician who will be remembered by those 60 years old or older, those with 78 collections or who have at least heard a few of his recordings. But even those only know Algazi by his music, and know that side of him only to a certain degree. It is hard to believe that even the majority of Jews in Turkey have little information about his life after he left turkey. For example even Avram Galanti, in “Turkısh Culure and the Turkish Jew,” seems not to have been aware of Algazi’s death three years after the fact.

İzak Algazi’s interesting life story, his noteworthy personality, the story of his politics and thoughts and various facets of his art only came to light with book, published in 1989, titled Mizimrat Qedem — The Life and Music of R. Isaac Algazi from Turkey, published by the Institute for Jewish Music. The book’s author, Professor Edwın Seroussı, was then a lecturer in the Musicology Department of Bar Ilan University, and is now the director of the Center for Jewish Musical Studies of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (3). Below, I drew from his book in providing Algazi’s life story.

Two cassettes of Algazi’s digitally cleaned 78 recordings have been produced together with a booklet. And in 2002, the Wergo music company in Germany recorded 25 of Algazi’s works on CD (SM 1622 - 2).As the two cassettes contain 32 records, five of them did not make it onto the CDs. Neither collection included any of the Turkish musical pieces Algazi recorded.


İzak Algazi was born in Izmir on April 24, 1889. His family was an old, well-known Izmir family. His father and grandfather were both cantors at synagogues. Like all Turkish citizens of the time, İzak grew up in an environment where traditional religious values were coming into conflict with free though. He came up within a Paris-based, western influenced, new mindset on the one hand, and an orthodox teaching in an elementary school teaching the Talmud and Torah.

His education ended in a Turkish public school. Later he continued at a “Hillel Yeshiva,” the director of which was the head cantor in Izmir. At the age of 19, he was appointed cantor to the newly built synagogue in Izmir’s Karakaş quarter, and in 1914, began teaching in Izmir’s Jewish schools. At a very young age, he participated in a variety of social activities both in and out of the Jewish community, and took on duties in Jewish institutions. From 1908-1911 he was a member of the Izmir City Council. In 1918 he married his wife, Regina, and a year later his first son Salomon was born.

Although İzak’s musical talent became noticed at a very young age, he often had financial troubles while young. Witnesses report that he secured extra income by giving music lessons to children in the community and to private groups.

During the early 20th century, he began to learn Ottoman-Turkish music in addition to Jewish religious music. His first music teacher was his father, Salomon Algazi. Professor Avram Galanti writes of Salomon Algazi: “Algazi, known by the nickname “Bülbülî Salomon,” with his divine voice, gained the admiration of all of Izmir. He composed a Çember usûlünde profound mahur beste, and peşrevs in hüseyni and hicaz. He died in the 1930s.” (4) His other music teachers were Şem Tov Şikâr (1840-1920) and Hayyim Alazraki (see Seroussi, p. 16).

Şem Tov Şikâr taught Algazi Turkish music. He gave music lessons to single students as well as ensembles at Izmir’s synagogues. These classes were announced to the public in Izmir Jewish newspapers. An extremely interesting one of these announcements from the standpoint of the Ottoman cultural mosaic, came out on January 10, 1905 in the newspaper El Novelista. With the headline “Mahur Faslı,” it read as follows:

“As was announced previously the Mahur Fasıl is being taught by teachers such as Şem Tov Şikâr, Hayyim Alazraki and Salomon Algazi. Our lessons, given individually and as a group have been very popular with the people. During the lessons, you can listen the dügâh fasıl performed by maestro Şikâr. But whichever fasıl it may be, he is loved by his audiences.” (5)

Announcements such as these do not reflect only the Izmir Jews’ taste for and activity in music, they also show the level of their mastery, sufficient to instruct the public.

During those years European opera companies and musicians came to Izmir as well as Istanbul. However in Izmir the community had also formed a western style band; its musicians were Jewish children who had received western musical education. İzak also had become acquainted with western music during the same years.

The disasters born of the Greek invasion during World War I caused a great depression in Izmir’s Jewish community. Faced with the suspicion that they were collaborating with the Greeks, community leaders were forced to leave the country. Unemployment as well as new expectations drew Algazi to Istanbul.

Thus it was that Algazi and his family moved in 1923 to Istanbul. There he entered the maftirim (chorus) of the Neva Shalom synagogue in Şişhane. After a time, he was brought to the Italian synagogue in Galata, known for its musical activities, and was made director of the synagogue’s musical affairs.

During the ten years Algazi spent in Istanbul, he became one of the foremost personalities in its Jewish community, playing an active role in Jewish educational institutions. He tried to improve the relations between the community and the leaders of the Republican administration, defending the view that the Jewish community needed to be a part of their new country. Algazi expressed this policy in the weekly newspaper La Voz Orıentale which he established. He became acquainted and established friendships with many masters of Turkish music; and with his knowledge of music, literature, history and philosophy, succeeded in acquiring a place for himself among the intellectuals of the republic.

During this time Algazi sang Turkish music in Dolmabahçe Palace for Atatürk, who loved Turkish music; and providing examples of Turkish musical history, provided Atatürk with knowledge. According to one observer, he advised Atatürk concerning the writing of Turkish history and the translation of the Koran in to Turkish. According to Leon Daniel, who now lives in Israel, in Izmir during those years Atatürk on one occasion said to Algazi, “A man like you is the pride of our nation!”

Despite all the optimistic expectations concerning the new order, the 1930s were not comfortable years for Algazi. The first sign of this was the increasing difficulty in finding employment; the second was Atatürk’s implementation of a policy of prefering Turks to non-muslims in civil service positions. One example of this new practice happened personally to Algazi: Atatürk did not approve Algazi’s membership in the Radio board of directors. According to the witness Moshe Vital, Algazi’s disappointment at this moved him to emigrate from Turkey. However, Algazi’s increasing Zionist tendencies were also an obstacle to his remaining in Turkey. In 1933, the forcing of his weekly newspaper to abandon the Hebrew alphabet and adopt Latin characters was for Algazi the most compelling sign that he could no longer stay. Thus the Turkish period of his life came to an end. One of Algazi’s students, cantor and kanun player David Behar, who saw his teacher on the Friday two days before he left Turkey, told the writer of this article in 1990 that the maestro was so sad that day that during that Friday service at the synagogue even his powerful voice was muted (6).

HIS YEARS IN PARIS (1933 – 1935)

Even by the early 1930s, İzak Algazi had begun establishing ties with the Jewish community in Paris, and in 1933 at the invitation of the community, he went to Paris. During those difficult days, the Sephardic community provided him with much help. He entered a synagogue as a cantor, and also continued educational and community work that he had begun in Turkey. He established relations with intellectuals and high-level state officials among whom was the French prime minister Eduard Herriot. But despite all his efforts, he was unable to secure a place to display his talent other than as a cantor. There were during those years several bright intellectuals and rich businessmen among the leaders of Paris’ Sephardic community; its musical activities were directed by the Romanian-born composer and orchestra conductor Leon Algazi (who was no relation of İzak Algazi and his family). İzak Algazi was unable to attract the attention he desired from this circle, full of talented, well-honed individuals. Even in the community newspaper his name was very infrequently mentioned. His inability to realize his hopes in such an environment was to draw him to a far away country.


In 1935, Algazi began serving as a cantor on high holidays in Uruguay’s capital city Montevideo. The majority of Uruguay’s Sephardic community were emigrants from Izmir, and thus it was not difficult for him to become close to this community. Traveling to Uruguay to visit and check it out, he received an offer to settle there and take a leading role in its community. Hoping that he would find what he wanted in this country, he accepted the offer. Even though this took him extremely far from his homeland and Europe’s important Sephardic centers, he found in Uruguay a young community in search of an identity and accepting of his leadership. Thus he quickly became an important person in Montevideo. During this period of his life, he honed both his personality in society as well as his abilities as a cantor; and was seen as a cantor and preacher in Brazil, Chile and Argentina as well.

He assisted in the foundation of the Latin American branch of the Zionist movement in Uruguay, the housing of refugees of the Holocaust, the formation of the Jewish National Fund and the World Sephardic Federation. In 1938, he became the Uruguayan delegate at the first South American Zionist Congress in Buenos Aires, and represented the Uruguayan community at the Sephardic Zionist Congress in 1940, also in Buenos Aires. In April of 1942, he was given the office of vice president at the community’s 1st Regional Meeting. During the same year, he was appointed honorary president of the National Fund, Keren Hayesod. Later, appealing to the President Alfredo Baldomir on behalf of Uruguay’s Jewish community, he requested that Uruguay be more welcoming to the refugees rescued from the Holocaust. With his help, many Jews found a place of refuge, and Uruguay’s anti-Nazi politics strengthened. Even today, Algazi is remembered in Uruguay for his humanitarian efforts.

In early 1944 İzak Algazi, together with another Sephardic leader, formed the Committee for the Support of Palestine in Uruguay. The Committee’s goal was to persuade famous non-Jews to support the Zionist cause. Through his efforts, Algazi was able to convince the poet Carlos Sabat Ercasti, anti-Nazi activist Huga Fernandez Artusio, and the leader of Uruguay’s Socialist Party. This committee was very active in supporting the efforts to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. In 1944, Algazi represented Uruguay in the World Jewish Congress meeting in New York immediately following the Holocaust in Europe. He wrote a poem in Hebrew for President Roosevelt on this occasion, which was published in 1944 in the New York Hebrew newpaper Ha-Doar along with its English translation.

Living in South America until the end of his life, İzak Algazi died on March 3, 1950. But the musician İzak Algazi had died much earlier, in 1933, when he left Turkey. A Seroussi said, “Although he became involved in a variety of societal efforts in South America, it is clear that the community was unable to f fully appreciate his personality, knowledge and views. What’s more, as none apart from a few individuals in Uruguay were able to appreciate his elevated position and expertise in Turkish music, his musical life came almost to a complete end there. Forgotten and far from the musical environment in which he had earned an outstanding position, he experienced a profound disappointment.” (p. 27)


İzak Algazi lived during a difficult and painful period for Ottoman Jews as well as Jews worldwide. The fall of the multinational/multi-faith Ottoman Empire where they had found refuge for four centuries led both to a spiritual crisis as well as a mass emigration. The pro-European Haskala (enlightenment) movement, which was influential in Turkish Jewish intellectual circles, was undergoing a great ideological crisis.

Atatürk’s ideology was founded not on multinationalism but rather on Turkish nationalism. But the Republican administration was adopting western cultural values, separating religious and governmental affairs; it had gone so far as to wholly remove religious officials from state affairs. These innovations deeply affected the Jews’ traditional way of life. On the other hand, the Zionist movement which had gained influence over Ottoman Jews in the first quarter of the century was increasing the confusion within the Jewish community. This chaos in the period’s political, ideological and cultural environment was reflected in İzak Algazi’s worldview. Edwin Seroussi explains  his ideological drama:

“Within the political and economical depression of the period, Algazi tried to arrive at an impossible ideological compromise; on one hand uniting his religious outlook with the goals of Atatürk’s Turkish nationalism and the national longings of Jewry shaped by the Zionist movement; and on the other, defending the traditional behavioral bounds of the Jewish faith. This ideological pastiche found no echo in Turkey; and conditions dragged him to Uruguay, far away from the main centers where the international events were occurring. Although he was involved in various communal activities in South America, the overall impression is that his circles in Uruguay insufficiently understood his personality, knowledge and views. To this we must also add that his brilliant musical life truly came to an end in Uruguay, because few in this country were able to appreciate his profound expertise in Turkish music. Finding himself forgotten and so distanced from the music of which he was such a master, doubtless dragged him into a deep spiritual depression.” (p. 26 –27).

İzak Algazi was one of the most outstanding intellectuals that the Jewish community of Turkey ever produced. In 1938, historian M. D. Gaon said of him, “He was one of one of the most enlightened of his coreligionists living in Turkey” (Seroussi, p. 13). His broad cultural life is evident in the books he published in the last years of his life; in his writings it is evident that he read and drew upon poets, thinkers and writers such as Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn, Herman Cohen, Martin Buber, Heinrich Heine and Henry Bergson. At the end of his book, Judaismo de Amor, written in Spanish, he expressis his world view and yearning thus:

“In order for humanity and all creatures to be able to live in love and harmony, differences among races, beliefs and classes should not be forgotten for all eternity; in order to fulfill the great will of God; the sun of freedom, justice and law will rise on all horizons, and shed its generous light on all humanity, and on all people.” (7)

According to cantor and kanun player David Behar, İzak Algazi was also a very good preacher, who spoke finely and moved his listeners. With this multifaceted personality, he attained fame rarely witnessed within Turkey’s Jewish community, he became almost legendary. The legend of Algazi is still alive today within Turkey’s Jewish community. Even the young generations have heard his name from their family and environment.


Algazi’s literary works consist of religious poetry, newspaper articles and two educational books he wrote on Jewish issues. He published his books during the last years of his life (1945-1949). His poems and poetry collections are significant for Turkish music. Every one of these poems was written for music in a fasıl, and together they form a series of lyrics. Each series carries names of a makam such as bestenigâr", "şevkefza" or "sûzidil.” The six poems  under the title “Bestenigâr” are lyrics written for a series of works written in the same makam; one of the works in the fasıl is by the famous Dede Efendi. The Şevkefza series begins with Algazi’s devr-i kebir peşrev which he composed on the words of a poem by the Ottoman Jewish poet İsrael Najara (see Seroussi, p. 29). In other words, in Ottoman Jewish music the peşrev, a type of instrumental work, was changed into a song with lyrics. The other poems in the series are lyrics which Turkish composers wrote for various works in the same makam. The Sûzidil series, apart from two poems, are the lyrics to a famous sûzidil suite composed of lyrics adapted to two bestes and two semais by Tanburî Ali Efendi; the first poem is again Algazi’s devri-kebir peşrev composed over a poem by Najara. All of the poems were written in a structure fitting the Ottoman Jewish poetic tradition (10). The meters of the poems are syllabic, based on the number of syllables in the lines. The lines of Algazi’s poems are either eight or 16 syllables; as stressed by Seroussi (p. 29), the use of syllabic meter as well as eight-syllable lines is a clearly distinguishing feature of Turkish folk poetry.

After his departure from Turkey, Algazi lost his creativity as a poet as much as he did as a musicians.


Before moving on to Algazi’s most important works, his music, it will be helpful to look briefly the past and historical background of Ottoman Jewish music.

Based on a blend of “Turkish music melodic structure (makam) + Hebrew lyrics,” the Ottoman Jewish musical tradition is believed to have begun in the 16th century in Istanbul and Salonica, with a well known poet named Salomon ben Mazal Tov. Based on Jewish music historian Salomon A Rozanes, Avram Galanti writes: “Due to their contact with Anadalusian Arabs, the Jews coming from Spain had adopted Arab music and had difficulty in accepting Turkish music. During the reign of Süleyman the Magnificant, a rabbi by the name of Şelomo (Salomon) ben Mazaltov adapted Turish music to Hebrew religious verse and at the same time to Spanish Jewish songs, and this continued up until the present.” (8)

Foremost among those who followed the course begun by Salomon Ben Mazal Tov was poet Israel Najara (1555-1625). In an anthology of Najara’s lyrics published in the late 16th century are Hebrew poems set to Spanish, Turkish, Greek and Arab melodies (p. 31). The pieces are in the rast, dügâh, hüseynî, buselik, segâh, segâh-ırak, nevruz-acem, mahur, neva, uzzal, nakış-hüseynî and nikriz makams. A composer as well, Najara composed also composed pieces in these makams. Thus began the practice of setting Hebrew lyrics to Turkish melodies, or writing original works with Hebrew lyrics, within the rules of Turkish music. After Najara, the Bursa poet Rabbi Yossef Ganso and many who followed him wrote poems for already-composed works, and arranged these poems in their books according to makam.

Najara died in 1625, and Ganso in 1640. The famous travelogue writer Evliya Çelebı, who was born in 1611 and included sections on instruments and musicians in his book dated to 1635 – 1638, includes some information on Jewish instrumentalists. For example, in the section “Magicians and Comics,” he mentions entertainment ensembles, known as “kols.” About one of these, the Patakoğlu kol, he writes “It consists of 300 people, all of whom are Jews (...) their instrumentalists in particular are famous” (9). Patakoğlu himself, who gave his name to this “kol,” was “considered precious by the Sultan” (10). “The two-hundred member Samarkaş Kol is completely composed of Jews” writes Çelebi, “Since Adam fell into this world, no man has seen such singers and musician been seen” (11). A Jew named Yako was an outstanding player of mıskal (Pan pipes), and another known as Karakaş was a well-known player of tanbulr (12). Made in the first half of the 17th century, these records of Evliya show clearly that the Jews had adopted Turkish music. Furthermore, the number of Jewish musicians in Istanbul increased greatly and master performers began to emerge from them. Cantemir, who came to Istanbul at the end of the 17th century, referred to a Jewish man by the name of Çelebiko as one of his music teachers (13).

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the center for music moved from Istanbul to Edirne. Until the recent past, the maftirim of Edirne’s Sephardic community was the finest performing ensemble of Ottoman Jewish music, with the broadest repertoire. All of the works sung by the maftirim were written according to the rules of the makams and usûls (meters) of Ottoman-Turkish music. After being passed down from generation to generation over the centuries in the form of manuscripts, they were printed in a book titled Shirei Israel Be-Erez Ha-Qedem, published in 1921 by Isaac Eliahu Navon. Historian Abranam Danon ties the development displayed in the community’s music to the influence of the Mevlevîs. Although Mevlevî lodges were not found only in Edirne, both oral and written Jewish sources indicated that from the standpoint of music, Edirne was more important a center than Istanbul. Providing the following information about the Edirne Maftirim, the Encyclopaedia Judaica refers to Danon on the subject of the relationship between Jewish music and the Mevlevîs:

“Edirne was at the same time a center of Jewish music. The maftirim, a choral ensemble, was founded in the 17th century. Every Friday morning, this ensemble would sing works from a holy book called “Jonk” (the counterpart to the Persian-Arabic word “çeng” (harp) in the local language (14). Many communities as far away as Bulgaria and Romania, when in need of a good cantor, would turn to Edirne. The works of the maftirim ensemble and the fame they earned contributed to Edirne’s increasing status as a center of religious music. Aaron B. İzak Hamon [author’s note: He must be the 18th century composer known to the Turks as “Yahudi Harun,”), Abraham Zeman (19th century) and Joseph Danon (-1901) may be counted among the best known composers to come up in Edirne. A. Danon collected and published a large number of Ladino folk songs from the Edirne region. Danon suggested that the Edirne Jews’ mastery of eastern music originated in the Muslim dervish lodge music, the style of which they took as their example.” (15)

With these observations included in his memoirs, singer Moşe Vıtal exhibits in a striking way the closeness and musical interchange between the Jews and the Mevlevîs:

“The abovementioned singers (Şem Tov Şikâr, Eliyahu Hacohen, Salomon and İzak Algazi) were greatly influenced by the music of the dervishes. (...) I remember, when I was a child I would run out of the house every Friday afternoon (I hadn’t yet begun elementary school) and go to watch the ceremonies in the dervish lodges and listen to their beautiful melodies. (...) In Izmir, other Jewish music lovers also would come frequently to the lodge to listen to the music performed there. Every dervish not only sang well, but also had a perfect knowledge of the Islamic musical tradition. The dervishes also knew the makams extremely well. (...) Our cantors learned their beautiful melodies, and brought what they learned into our synagogues.” (Seroussi, p. 34)

In the book Shirei Israel Be-Erez Ha-Qedem, this information given on the “concert” program of the maftirim is enlightening from the standpoint of understanding the types of compositions that Jewish music took from Mevlevî music, and the order of performance:

“Before each makam, the chorus leader (serhanende) would begin chanting alone. Slowly, in free rhythm and improvising according to his mood, he would chant verses from the holy book. But according to the rules of the makam, he first began on the tonic, and finished in the makam of the piece that was to be performed that week. He would do the same thing at the end of the performance.” (Seroussi, p. 63)

From this, we understand that the music began with a “lyrical taksim,” and generally ended with one as well. This arrangement can be considered an imitation of the musical arrangement of the Mevlevî zikrs, the only difference being that the taksim was performed vocally rather than instrumentally.

The maftirim’s practice of singing works in a different makam each week is also a characteristic of Mevlevî music, in which an ayin in a different makam is chanted at each zikr.

The “makam melody + Hebrew lyrics” tradition that began with Salomon Ben Mazal and Israel Najara has continued up to the present day. Even in a period where western music, with its bands, orchestras, choruses, operas and operettas were becoming widespread, it was still this music that was being performed in the synogogues of Istanbul. Here is a memoir from the period of World War I:

“During the great war, when Ottoman field marshals were 150 lira per month, a rabbi had been brought by the congregation of the synagogue on Yüksek Kaldırım in Galata, who was receiving 300 lira per month. He had a deep voice. He was singing some of the compositions of the late Hamamîzade İsmail Dede, adapting them to the words of the Psalms of David.” (16)

In the Republican period, when only western music was receiving any state support, the synagogues, bound to the Turkish musical tradition, were perpetuating their traditions. Rauf Yekta Bey provides relates a memory of this:

“Here I ask my readers to indulge me as I relate a few of my memories: One Friday about ten years ago, at the guidance of Moiz Efendi, doorman at the rabbinate, I went to a synogogue in Galata and was present for the service. With their fine voices the cantors chanted a series of hymns in the makam beyatî. Among these one of them seemed familiar. With a bit of attention, I realized that they had adapted the beyatî murabba written by the Turkish composer Dede Efendi, “Bir gonca femin yâresi vardır ciğerimde” to Hebrew lyrics, and were performing this masterpiece equally masterfully in Hebrew! What was odd was that the Turkish Jews, in adapting the psalms of David to works from the Turkish secular repertoire, saw no harm in including intact the terennüm - the interjections or meaningless syllables such as “Canım yel lel lı terelellı, dirnâ te ne nen” which followed the verses in the original!” (17)

Ruşen Kam also related a memory in the same vein, during a “Classical Turkish Music Chorus” program with explanations of the pieces broadcast in the 1970s at Ankara radio, devoted to our famous Jewish composer Tanburî İzak’s gül’izar suıite. The memory was related to Algazi:

“Dear listerners, I will  never forget, forty years ago İzak Algazı, who had come to Istanbul, took me one day to a synagogue on the slope of Şişhane in Istanbul. There, as far as I can remember, I listened to the murabba in evcârâ by 18th century composer Mehmed Ağa, “Gelince hatt-ı muanber o meh cemalimize,” with Hebrew religious lyrics.” (18)

All of these memoirs may give the impression that the Jewish musical repertoire consists only of secular Turkish musical works. But that would be a mistake, because there are not as many Turkish works adapted to Hebrew words as is commonly supposed. According to cantor and kanun player David Behar, whom I consulted on this subject, the practice of putting Hebrew words to Turkish compositions is something that took place only with much beloved works. He himself had adapted Zekâi Dedes "Bin cefa görsem ey sanem senden" acemaşiran beste and Muallim İsmail Hakkı Bey′s nihavend ağır semai "Seni hükm-i ezel âşûb-ı devrân etmek istermiş" to Hebrew lyrics.

In 1990, I went for seven or eight weeks in a row to services at the Şişli synagogue, where David Behar works and directs the maftirim chorus. The maftirim sang “fasıls” of the composition forms known as “kâr,” “beste”, “ağır semai, “şarkı,” and “ilahi” in makams such as dügâh, ısfahan, bayatî, acem, acemaşiran and nihavend. Among these, by coincidence, I heard Zekâi Dede′s acemaşiran beste, "Bin cefa görsem ey sanem senden" and Muallim İsmail Hakkı Bey′s nihavend ağır semaisi, "Seni hükm-i ezel âşûb-ı devrân etmek istermiş", which David Behar had set to Hebrew lyrics.

Today the great majority of the pieces in the synagogue music repertoire are original pieces, composed within the makam, usûl and beste forms by Jewish composers who were trained within the Turkish approach to and taste in music. In present-day Istanbul, even in Turkey, the most faithful representative of Ottoman Jewish music is the Şişli synagogue and its maftirim, under the direction of David Behar’s finest student, David Sevi. Consisting of seven or eight cantors, the group sings “fasıls” consisting of "kâr,"
"beste," "semai," nad "şarkı" etc. every Friday afternoon.

The interaction between Ottoman Turkish and Ottoman Jewish emphasized thus far has at times been inverted; that is, Jews have taught music to Turks as well. For example, according to Avram Galanti, Rabbi Avram Mandil (the son of the Turkish music composer Rabbai Şemoil Mandil), who lived in Istanbul in the late 19th century was a pioneer in musical research in Turkey, and was the teacher of the famous Galata Mevlevîhane Sheikh Ataullah Dede (1843-1910) (19). Another well-known historical example is Sultan Selim III, who took tanbur lessons from İzak Fresco Romano, who we know as Tanburî İzak." According to a personal communication from David Behar, İzak Algazı also gave music lessens to Turks and especially to women (20). But most interesting of all was that at times, pieces by Jewish composers in the common makam, usûl and even composition type, to be sung in the synagogues, were also at times able to make the transition into Turkish secular music. These words from Suphi Ezgi’s music teacher Şeyh Halim Efendi gives us noteworth clues: “As İzak was a pious man, he humbly reminded me that the fourth verse of the bayati peşrev of a certain piece sung in the synagogue contained several repetitions of the word ‘amen.’”(21)

And just as the Jews had grown attached to Turkish music, the Mevlevîs also greatly enjoyed listening to the performances of the Jews, who had become masters of Turkish music. The Izmir-born Abraham Atalef, who had heard Algazi in the synagogue, said that Mevlevîs would come to hear Algazi and listened enthusiastically (see Seroussi, p. 22). David Behar related that aside from the Mevlevîs in the Galata lodge, Zekâizade Ahmet Efendi, Muallim İsmail Hakkı Bey and their students would go to the synagogue to hear Algazi. He also mentioned that Münir Nurettin Selçuk had traveled from Istanbul to Izmir in order to Algazi and had been very moved by him. And in listening to Algazi’s records, one sense certain features of his performance style that indicate that Münir Nurettin Selçuk had been influenced by him. Hafız Kâni Karaca is also known to go to synagogues from time to time to listen to the maftirim.


Beginning in the second half of the 16th century, not only Ottoman Jewish religious music used makams, but secular and entertainment musical genres as well.

The main centers of Ottoman Jewish music were Istanbul, Edirne, Izmir, Salonica and Bursa. However this music’s influence reached other cities quite far from the abovementioned centers. For example Jews living in areas of the Ottoman state such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia were also observed to sing makam music until recently (22). Other sources indicate that this music had also reached even farther to cities including Venice and Livorno. One of these relates that Sephardic Jews living in Venice in 1628 celebrated a holiday by singing Turkish songs (23).

Ottoman Jewish music shows considerable variety in its use of makam. The book Shirei Israel Be-Eretx Ha-Qadem contains forty makams.

The makams in the pieces notated by David Behar, which constitute the repertoire of synagogue music number around forty. Among the makams used in both collections are certain makams which are little or very rarely used in Turkish music today, including çargâh, araban, arazbar, arazbarbuselik, acem, nişâbur, nühüft, tahir, buselik-aşiran, sazkâr and pençgâh.

In addition to the makam and usûl system of Turkish music, Jewish musicians also adopted the “meşk” tradition which constituted the foundation of its approach to education, teaching and performance (24). Instrumental works such as peşrev, saz semaisi and taksim had simply been set to words; it is clear that this change was due to the fact that, just as in mosques, the playing of instrumental music is forbidden. (As the synagogue pieces presented here were being published on a record, there was no harm seen in their being accompanied instrumentally.)

Jewish writers and certain information and notes in various Jewish sources show that from the 17th century on, the Ottoman Jews produced several composers. Among these were some who are very well know and whose works are frequently played, such as İzak Fresko Romano (Tanburî İzak, -1814), Abraham Levi Hayat (Mısırlı İbrahim, 1881-1933) and İzak Varon (1884-1962); as well as others whose names (and sometimes works as well) appear in Turkish sources, including Aharon Hamon (Yahudi Harun, 17th – 18th. centuries),  Rabbi Moşe Faro (Haham Musi, - 1776), Rabbi Avtalyon (Küçük Hoca, 18th. century), Rabbi Şemoil Mandil (19th. century), Violinist İzak Barki (19th. century), Avram Barzilay (19th. century), Rabbi Nesim Sevilya (19th. – 20th. centuries), Hayyim Alazraki (Şapçı Hayim, - 1913), Şem Tov Şikâr (Hoca Santo, 1840 – 1920), Salomon Algazi (- 1930)

The following composers listed in the Encyclopaedıa Judaıca mentıoned by Avaram Galanti, David Behar and Seroussi are, I believe, little known or completely unknown today: Rabbi Yom Tov Danon (Küçük Haham, second half of the 17th century), İzak Amigo (18th century), Rabbi Yehuda Benaroya (Yuda, ? - ?), Edirneli Bohor (19th - 20th centuries) and Moiz Kordova 20th century). Al Benaroya and and Yom Tov Danon are mentioned by Turkish names as well, they must have at least been known in the musical circles of their day.

İzak Algazı’s name should also be mentioned among these composers. What happened to Algazi’s kâr in neveser, his fasıls in şevkefza, mâye, sûzidil and bestenigâr and the Turkish Air Force march to which Seroussi found the lyrics? For some reason, Seroussi did not touch upon his composer side. Edwin Seroussi was in contact with Algazi’s family in Uruguay. Let us hope that one day his works will emerge into the light of day.


We know of Algazi’s style, technique and other works through pieces that have been passed down from mouth to mouth, notated compositions, and 78 rpm records.

A few singers in Israel who were visited, most of whom are Izmir born, sing songs and hymns which they learned from Algazi himself or from his records and from the radio (p. 37). A collection of manuscripts in Algazi’s personal library in Uruguay contains pieces by Jewish composers from Izmir (p 37). The notation seems to match that of Rauf Yekta Bey. There are also notated works published by Algazi. A booklet, “Hüseynî Faslı,” which he notated and published in Istanbul in 1925 contains notation for the following pieces: 1. Devr-i Kebir peşrev: Avram Ariyas; 2. Muhammes Kâr: Avtalyon; 3. A “beste” in Hafif usûl: Avram Ariyas; 4. Yürük Semai: Avtalyon, 5. Peşrev Semai: Aharon Hamon′a (Dedicated to Yahudi Harun).

I mentioned that in 1989, the Institute for Jewish Music in Israel made cleaned-up copies of Algazi’s 78s and published them in two cassettes. Like all of his records, these too were recorded between 1923 and 1933. Most of these records were released by Columbia, and some of them by the Odeon, Pathé and Favorite companies. Yorgo Bacanos and the Jewish kanun and oud player Abraham Daniel are believed to have accompanied Algazi on many of his records. In Mizimrat Zedem (p. 40), Seroussi writes that the oud player who accompanied Algazi was Aleko Bacanos. However Aleko Bacanos played kemençe, the correct name is Yorgo Bacanos


The 32 records by Algazi that the Jewish Institute released on cassette include Jewish religious music with Hebrew lyrics, religious melodies with Judeo-Spanish lyrics, Judeo-Spanish folk songs and the song of Zion (now Israel’s national anthem.

Most of these hymns and songs are based on makam. Taking into account the transitions that Algazi employed in these pieces, we see that he used the makams segâh, uşşak, hüseynî, sabâ, sûznâk, mahur, acemaşiran, sazkâr, bestenigâr, bayatî and nihavend. A few songs were considered “alafranka” by Turkish Jews, but actually are pieces believed to be taken from synagogues outside the Sephardic tradition. One piece, though it does not display a makam structure, the style and manner of singing are reminiscent of a piece in makam.

As we were looking at the synagogue music repertoire of David Behar, he said that the piece belonged to a composer named İzak, and was a hymn at least 150 years old. It should not be considered impossible that it was written by the famous Tanburî İzak. But the similarities between this piece and third verse of the third selam in Derviş Mustafa Evendi’s very well known bayatî Mevlevî ayin (which begins with the line, "An sürhi kabaâyi ki çü mehpâr berâmed”) is striking. It is possible that Tanburî İzak took this piece directly from the bayatî Mevlevî ayin. Without being aware of this similarity, David Behar noticed that this hymn should be notated not in 6/4 but in 6/8 yüyük semai meter, just as it was in the ayin, and told this to the author.

Both on the cassettes recorded by the Jewish Institute and the disc published by the Wergo company, none of the Turkish works sung by Algazi were included. This is a deficiency, because Algazi was not only a performer of Ottoman Jewish music, but of Ottoman Turkish music as well. Including some of the Turkish pieces he recorded in this album, our aim was to do away with this lack.

Of the thirty two pieces on the cassettes, a major portion are in free rhythm. This shows that free meter had an important place in Jewish music. The widespread nature of free meter music also made it commonplace in improvisation. Even today, singers of maftirim begin the singing of a “fasıl” with a lyrical makam, and sometimes add “intermediary makams;” at the end of the fasıl they once again sing a lyrical makam, with “amin” (amen) repeated by the congregation at the end of each line. Piece no. 21 on this disk, although not a religious melody, finishes with a gazel, or a “closing taksim.”

We do not know the real number or records Algazi made, nor their contents. The record catalog in Cemal Ünlü’s book, Git Zaman Gel Zaman (Pan Publishers, 2004) whows twenty four records of Turkish music; with the inclusion on this disc of three songs not included in Ünlü’s catalog, (şevkefza şarkı, şevkefza gazel and acemaşiran beste), the number increases to 27. The number of records in the cassette collection released by the Institute for Jewish Music was 32, of which 25 were religious, 6 were secular and 1 was Zionist. Looking at this rather complex situation, I was moved to ask the question, “Can we really say that “İzak Algazi displayed his true mastery in synagogue music; and that his true repertoire was of Jewish religious ceremonial music?”

The answer I got was this:

“No, Algazi was really a master of Turkish music. True, he never gave a live concert, or at least I don’t remember it, but well known people, music lovers and the well-to-do invited him into their homes. He would attend these gatherings together with musician friends and sing fasıls. He was most often accompanied by the oudist Mısırlı İbrahim. He was always the lad singer in the fasıls, and also played def (he could play the oud as well). He most often sang with the şah register (25). He did not accept payment; he sang for the enjoyment of it. He became much talked about figure in these private concerts, now a thing of the past, into which he put all his mastery and knowledge of repertoire; into şarkı in the kâr, murabba and beste as well as türküs.”

Let us be a bit more realistic than David Behar and say that Algazi was equally a master of both genres of music. In the Ottoman musical past there were musicians who, like Algazi, were masters of both their own religious milieu (churches and synagogoes) and of Turkish music. Like Zaharya, who is said to have been a cantor in the Greek church; Tanburî İzak (Izak Fresco Romano) who was a cantor in the synagogue; and composer Hampartzum Limonciyan who worked in the Armenian church, İzak Algazi also continued this old tradition.

One avid listener of Algazi’s Turkish music performances was former lecturer at the Istanbul College of Medicine Prof. Dr. Tevfik Remzi Kazancıgil. Remembering him, Alâeddin Yavaşça said that at a musical gathering that Prof. Kacancıgil attended in the Beyazıt mansion of İbnülemin Mahmut Kemal İnal, Yavaşça sang Dede Efendi’s bayatî şarkı, “Nice bir aşkınla feryâd edeyim. A few days later, Kazancıgil related the following to Yavaşça:

“That night you sang Dede Efendi’s bayatî şarkı that I love so much. I had a friend, the well known cantor İzak Algazi Efendi. He sang that piece beautifully, but you also sang it very well” (26).

Soon therafter, Yavaşça, would begin his specilist training at the obstetrics clinic of the Istanbul College of Medicine where Prof. Kazancıgil was head. Years later, Yavaşça said, “I ended up in this specialization, which others didn’t even consider, because of Dede’s bayatî şarkı” (27).

Another event, which violinist Sadi Işılay related to David Behar, Niyazi Sayın and other musicians, will give a more vivid idea of Algazi’s knowledge of repertoire:

“A wealthy Jewish businessman of Izmir, who was a lover of music, invited violinist Sadi Işılay and two of his friends, who played oud and kanun, to hıs home. On the day of the invitation, the host said to Işılay, “I would like to introduce someone to you,” and introduced Algazi to Işılay and his two musician friends. Algazi suggested a hicaz fasıl, in order that it would be an easy makam. After a peşrev of the hicaz fasıl that everyone knew, Algazi went into the first beste. The instrumentalists had never even heard this piece, and so, unable to accompany him, just followed as best they could by following the motifs; they could not do any more. In the second beste, they found themselves in the same situation; they knew the semai but when it came to the songs they could not accompany the singer. Later Algazi inserted a gazel between the songs, but forgetfully stayed on Bb when he was going to resolve on A (dügâ). At that moment, Sadi Işılay said “eyvah” (“alas”) and leaned over to remınd Algazi. Upon that, Algazi went back to Bb, and resolved on A! At the conclusion of the fasıl, Sadi Işılay said to Algazi, “You are a great master, we’re just players.”

The first part of his memoir is significant from the standpoint of Algazi’s great repertoire of Turkish music, and the second portion in that it indicates his mastery of pitch and makam structure. It also cannot fail to spur the thought: Although there are beautiful, masterful performances among the records we are publishing here, these cannot fully reflect his knowledge of his art and the level of his performance.

Bülent Aksoy

(1) Avram Galanti, Türkler ve Yahudiler, supplemented second edition, Tan Matbaası, Istanbul, 1947,
s. 128.
(2) Galanti, Türk Harsı ve Türk Yahudisi, Fakülteler Matbaası, Istanbul, 1953, s. 45-46.
(3)  Edwin Seroussi, Mizimrat Qedem – The Life Music of R. Issaac Algazi from Turkey. This book is available from:: Renanot, Institute for Jewish Music, 58 King George St. Q. O. B. 7167, Jerusalam 91071, Israel. The information taken from Seroussi is in this book.
(4)  Galanti, Türkler ve Yahudiler, s. 128.
(5) Related by Seroussi, ibid., p. 17. Original text is from the newspaper El Novelista ( 16:3, January 5, 1905, p. 18). Original text in Judeo-Spanish.
(6) Personal communication from David Behar on 27 Ekim 1990.
(7) Related by Seroussi, from İzak Algazi, El Judaísmo Religión de Amor, Buenos Aires: Editorial Judaica, p. 478.
(8) Türkler ve Yahudiler, s. 124.

(9) Evliya Çelebi Seyahatnamesi, 2nd book, condensed by Zuhuri Danışman, Zuhuri Danışman Yayınevi, Istanbul, 1969, pl 317.
(10)  Evliya Çelebi, ibid. p. 307.
(11)  Evliya Çelebi, ibid. p. 317.
(12)  Evliya Çelebi, ibid. p. 307- 308.
(13)  Bkz. Dimitri Kantemir (Kantemiroğlu), Osmanlı İmparatorluğunun Yükseliş ve Çöküş Tarihi, Vol. III, translated by Özdemir Çobanoğlu, Kültür Bakanlığı Yayınları, Ankara, 1979, p. 242.
(14) This is clearly a mistake. The true word is not “çeng,” and instrument, but the word “cönk,” which means a collection containing the works of various poets. What we understand is that the folders of lyrics sung in the synagogue were called “cönk.”

(15) Encylopaedia-Judaica, Volume, Keter Publishing House Ltd. Damascus, 1972, column 311.
Edirne is estimated to have retained its importance as a musical center until the end of the Second World War. According to the same encyclopedia, there were 2,750 Jews living in Edirne in 1948; by 1965 this number had fallen to 400. In 1948, there was still a very well-organized Jewish community. The economic depression following the war was devastating to Edirne, and the community gradually began moving to Istanbul, Israel and other countries. By 1969 all of the institutions of this community had closed, which was now only able to keep one synagogue open for worship (see column 311).

(16) Çankırılı Hacı Şeyh Oğlu Ahmet Kemal, Görüp İşittiklerim, Volum IV, Çankırı Matbaası, Çankırı, 1934, s. 73.

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